Roger Garten (photo: Gary Himes)
When I started going to the drags in the early 1970s, the Mustang was the clear body of choice in the Funny Car ranks. Jerry Ruth. The Blue Max. The L.A. Hooker. Tommy Grove. Connie Kalitta. Shirley Muldowney. Bill Leavitt. Larry Fullerton. Billy Meyer. Keeling & Clayton. Mickey Thompson. I liked the way they looked – big and bad. They weren’t sleek-looking like those Vegas. They were muscular and a bit frightening. As a Southern California race fan, I saw a lot of Mustangs, and few were prettier than Roger Garten’s War Horse. It didn't take long for it to become one of my early favorites, its purple-blue paint artfully accented by a cool silver metalflake flank and hood.
The rise of the Nostalgia Funny Car class has meant that newer fans who missed those flopper heydays got to see what it was like back then, and when Garten decided to rejoin the fray after a 30-plus-year retirement, he did it with a car that was faithful to those roots, allowing guys like me who watched these cars before we even had a driver’s license the chance to enjoy them again with older, wiser, and more appreciative eyes.
We lost Garten last week, the victim of a racing crash, at age 69. I’ve read a lot of online tributes to him, lauding him for spending his retirement the way we might all hope to and noting that he died doing what he loved, but none of that helps fill the void in our hearts, or at least in mine, for another quarter-mile warrior lost.
The dictionary defines war horse as "a soldier, politician, or sports player who has fought many campaigns or contests," and that certainly fits Roger Garten. And in a year when the sport of horse racing celebrated the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, we must mourn the loss of our own thoroughbred, our War Horse.
Garten jumped right into fast cars, taking his first ride in the nine-second A/GS ’33 Willys of Chuck Finders and Bill Altizer, whom he had befriended and for whom he had served as a crewmember. He quickly graduated to a fuel altered with longtime partner Bob Tocco and Harry Harper. The car first ran an injected nitro big-block Chevy and later added a blower. They eventually moved up to an early-model Chrysler that they purchased from the team of Dave Braskett and Gary Burgin, who were transitioning to the late-model style.
Bob Tocco left the team, and Garten and Harper joined forces with the famed engine-building powerhouse of Bishop & Buehl. Tocco’s cousin, Mike, stayed with the team.
As the Funny Cars gained popularity, Garten switched to the flip tops with Mike Tocco as his crew chief. The duo campaigned their unforgettable Mustang for three seasons, 1972-74.
In 1975, Garten got one of the sleek new Mustang IIs and a new crew chief in former fuel altered pilot Glenn Way, who was coming off of the disappointment surrounding the Wonder Wagon fiasco. The two made a great team and won the 1975 Division 7 championship, outlasting tough competition such as Jake Johnston, John Lombardo, Meyer, Dennis Geisler, and Jim Dunn. The War Horse ran hard and often, sometimes three times a week, and although the car paid for itself, not much was left at the end of the season to continue to climb the ladder of success. He retired from driving early in the 1976 season.
Garten worked as a heavy-equipment operator for Sully Miller Construction for 39 years, and after his retirement, he returned to racing. He and Tocco had already been part of the nostalgia scene, cackling the restored Tocco-Harper-Garten AA/FA before jumping in with both feet by returning to the Funny Car class as part of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series in 2010. It didn’t take him long to find the winner’s circle; he won the Nitro Nite of Fire event at Sacramento Raceway June 11-12.
We were all blessed to see Roger Garten ride back into battle for another five years, and we would have loved to have seen him go on for another five or 10 years, riding the War Horse into battle and helping us all recall those great early days. Sadly, we won't get that, but I'm pretty sure he's doing dry hops in heaven.